Monday, July 9, 2012

The Tuition Crisis, Aliyah and Happiness

Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein recently wrote a passionate piece on his blog about the unintended victims of the ongoing tution crisis: the unborn children, who will never be born, because their parents can't see a way to affordably raise them. His post raises important questions that he doesn't attempt to answer, for good reason. There aren't that many good answers.
Not surprisingly, a number of commenters suggest aliyah as a solution to the crisis, as tuition in Israel is largely paid by the government. I have come to realize that these types of responses just irk American Orthodox Jews who: (a) hate being lectured about aliyah constantly in the blogosphere and (b) insist, correctly, that aliyah won't solve the crisis. Take this comment for example:
I know the aliyahnicks mean well, probably, but anyone shilling for aliyah as an answer to an economic crisis must be either wholly uninformed or looking for company with whom to share their misery.
When you make aliyah, you must do so with your eyes wide open. You must do so with total understanding that you are accepting a far worse economic situation than the one you are leaving. You don’t have to pay tuition for school; this is true. Instead, you earn a quarter of what you earn in North America and you pay double for every good and service you can name. Tuition-free schooling does not offset that.
I’m not advocating against aliyah, but at least be aware of what you’re getting yourself into. Start by grocery shopping on your next visit.
In a way, he's right - but only partially. Salaries certainly are smaller here, and basic expenses eat a huge chunk out of the average monthly paycheck. But I don't at all agree that it's a "far worse" economic situation, especially for an Orthodox Jew. In the end, I think that financially for most Orthodox Jews it ends up being a wash: in the United States, salaries are higher, but you pay through the nose for health insurance and tuition, while in Israel we earn less, but spend far, far less on those two major expenses.
Either way, you'll struggle. But, to my mind, there's a major distinction between living in the United States and living in Israel which can and must factor into the decision of where to live, and that's the issue of happiness. Where will you be happier? The answer, as the vast, vast majority of olim will tell you, is in Israel, for reasons that have nothing to do with religion.
This week's NY Times Opinion section featured a fascinating piece on happiness and income. Normally, we instinctively associate wealth with happiness: the more I have, the happier I will be. But research indicated that this assumption simply doesn't pan out. 
The catch is that additional income doesn’t buy us any additional happiness on a typical day once we reach that comfortable standard. The magic number that defines this “comfortable standard” varies across individuals and countries, but in the United States, it seems to fall somewhere around $75,000. Using Gallup data collected from almost half a million Americans, researchers at Princeton found that higher household incomes were associated with better moods on a daily basis — but the beneficial effects of money tapered off entirely after the $75,000 mark.
Why, then, do so many of us bother to work so hard long after we have reached an income level sufficient to make most of us happy? One reason is that our ideas about the relationship between money and happiness are misguided. In research we conducted with a national sample of Americans, people thought that their life satisfaction would double if they made $55,000 instead of $25,000: more than twice as much money, twice as much happiness. But our data showed that people who earned $55,000 were just 9 percent more satisfied than those making $25,000. Nine percent beats zero percent, but it’s still kind of a letdown when you were expecting a 100 percent return.
In America, speicifically becomes incomes are so high, it's a culturally accepted norm that the more you earn and the more you have, the happier you'll be. So people - all people - Jew or not, Orthodox or not - fall into the income trap of "needing" more in a never-ending pursiut of the happiness that seems increasingly out of reach the closer we get to it. I've written about this before, but it's worth repeating: when an American meets someone new, what's the very first question he usually asks? "What do you do?" Essentially, we're asking her, "How much money do you make?" because the answer to that question will allow me to place that person within our heirarchy of importance. Basically, the wealthier you are, the more important you are. This is just how most Americans think, for better or for worse.
In Israel, while this kind of thinking has crept into society to some degree, people generally don't think this way. They first ask, "Where do you live?" (or to Olim) "Where are you from?", "How many children do you have?" and try to play some form of Jewish geography. One's financial status has much less of an impact on a person's stature within the community, especially when you get away from the mostly Anglo communities (where the attitude is, understandably, still very prevalent). I'm not just making this up. Studies have shown that Israelis are generally happier than citizens of most other countries, including the United States. With all the challenges that Israel faces, these studies are certainly surprising.
Moving to Israel involves many difficult shifts - but this subtle, critical cultural shift is one of the many important benefits of Aliyah that's difficult if not impossible to articulte. How do you explain to someone that they'll care about different things and subtly, but critically shift their life's focus, when they're still living in a different environment? From an American perspective, aliyah seems daunting precisely because there's no economic benefit. "If I struggle here and I'll struggle there, I might as well stay here and struggle because at least I know the langauge." Sounds true enough. How do you explain, then, that while the struggle is real (both for native Israelis and their Anglo brethren), it feels different; it's not as all-encompassing; there are other aspects to life that take on greater importance?
I'll put it another way: aliyah isn't a solution to an individual's economic struggles, but it is a very real solution to his or her "economic crisis," because here, culturally, it's not a crisis. It's a struggle to make ends meet, and to "complete the month." But, for most of us who have found jobs and make a decent living, thank God, there are other, more important things in life than how much money we make.
No, making Aliyah will not solve "the" tuition crisis. But, if you're like most olim, it will solve your tuition crisis. You'll still struggle to pay your bills. But it won't be a crisis.